Road trips through South Africa often entail driving large distances without any human settlement in sight. There is no radio signal, so I often tune into my playlist to keep me company.
Earlier this year I drove through the Karoo, a large, expansive arid semi-desert region that lies between the mountains of Cape Town and the brown flatlands of the Free State Province. “Weeping” by a 1980s South African group named Bright Blue started playing. It was the perfect song to listen to in the middle of nowhere.
I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing nearBehind his house, a secret placeWas the shadow of the demon he could never faceHe built a wall of steel and flameAnd men with guns, to keep it tameThen standing back, he made it plainThat the nightmare would never ever rise againBut the fear and the fire and the guns remain.
Small Karoo towns seem to be lost in time. The pattern of life has changed little despite the massive socio-political changes that South Africa has undergone in the last 30 years.
Take Touwsriver at the very edge of the Karoo if you’re driving from Cape Town. It was once an important railway center. Today, it has a population of about 8,000 people and the ghosts of the old steam engines that chugged through it in years gone by.
Touwsriver is divided into two distinct areas: The old side of town with its 150-year-old buildings and established businesses belongs to the white families who have lived there for generations. Across the river, you find the small, drab houses with tin rooves belonging to the black families who live from farming or tourism. A short distance away, next to the local rubbish dump, is Zion Park, an informal settlement that accommodates seasonal workers or those who have recently come to town in hope of finding work.
For many rural and semi-rural black communities, apartheid has never really ended. A lack of quality education and opportunity means that the cycle of poverty repeats itself generation after generation. Young people, full of energy and passion, grow up knowing that unless they catch a lucky break, their lives will be just like their parents and grandparents, trying to eke out an existence on meagre resources and few opportunities. Frustration and disillusion form the backbone to many violent protests from large cities to small towns like Touwsriver.
“Weeping” was originally written as an anti-apartheid song and served as a cautionary tale. The apartheid state used fear and repression, and an array of bizarre legislation to ensure that black people remained a labourer class in service of their white overlords.
The song warns that despite the “wall of steel and flame” to contain the “shadow of the demon”, the “fear and the fire and the guns remained.” It is a prophesy that repression and violence were the only means by which apartheid could ensure its continued existence.
The song tells us that the “demon” is not as frightening as perceived because “it wasn’t roaring, it was weeping.” The sadness and the frustration of those subjugated by apartheid law would eventually rise up and the song’s refrain – “It is still around” is an echo of hope that apartheid would eventually be overcome.
As I looked around at the racial and economic divide of Touwsriver, I see old patterns repeating. Now, the battle is less about institutional racism. But there is still an existential “wall of steel and flame” that effectively bars previously disadvantaged communities from accessing new economic opportunities.
Lebo is a young man I met in Touwsriver. Originally from the economic powerhouse of Johannesburg, Lebo has tertiary qualifications in economics and finance. His mother worked three jobs to help fund his education. Throughout his studies, Lebo did various odd jobs to make it all work.
Having finally completed his degree, Lebo joined the ranks of thousands of qualified graduates to search for limited jobs in an almost stagnant economy – growing slowly over the last few years due to corruption, lack of investor confidence, failing infrastructure, and more recently, a global pandemic.
Frustrated by sending dozens of job applications that went unanswered and becoming increasingly desperate to support himself and his family, Lebo accepted a job as a waiter at an exclusive game reserve. He got the job because his excellent English, friendly personality, and professionalism made him a favourite among the foreign tourists.
He had hoped that he would be able to save money to return home and start his own small business. However, he soon realized that the long hours he was required to work meant that he was earning less than the legally acceptable minimum wage. He had thought he would stick it out until something better came along. Except that nothing did.
When I met Lebo in Touwsriver, he was on his way back to Johannesburg, using what earnings he had saved to buy himself a bus ticket home. He still carried his dream of starting his own business. His refrain echoed the song: “It is still here.” He still had hope. I wished him well and crossed my fingers that his dreams would eventually come true.
But as I watched him fading in the distance from my rear-view mirror, I wondered how long the dream would stay alive. Or would idealism and hope eventually give way to frustration and anger?
When apartheid ended, we collectively hoped that “the nightmare would never rise again,” but unless we can truly transform our society and put an end to historical socioeconomic divisions by improving the quality of education and growing our economy, a new generation will rise up against the government that once promised – and failed – to liberate them from the shackles of poverty. Their protest is not born from a desire for anarchy but is the frustrated weeping of millions who desire a better future for themselves and their children.
(…to be continued…)
Transadaptation Volume 4 – Material Dissent
January: A Blinding Light and Then, All Darkness – Jonay Quintero Hernández (Spain)
February: The Opportunist – Lauren Voaden (United Kingdom)
March: A Stranger in my City – Alejandra Baccino (Uruguay)
April: A South African Soundtrack – Sarah-Leah Pimentel (South Africa)
May: Full Circle – Ina Maria Vogel (Germany)
June: La Lluvia en Bogotá – Adriana Uribe (Columbia)
July: Freedom – Krisztina Janosi (Hungary)
August: A Bus Ride – Svetlana Molchanova (Russia)
September: Transcendence – Armine Asryan (Nane Sevunts) (Armenia)
October: Motherhood – Marilin Guerrero Casas (Cuba)
November: To be announced – (hopefully) Gennady Bondarenko (Ukraine)
December: Open – Seyit Ali Dastan (Turkey)
Background – Context
Transadaptation Volume 3: Evanescent – Young Adulthood Transadapted, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2022)
Transadaptation Volume 2: Conceived – Childhood Transadapted, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2021)
Transadaptation Volume 1: In the Middle – Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2020)
Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists by Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)
La Syncrétion of Polarization and Extremes Transposée, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)
The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2018)
L’anthologie of Global Instability Transpuesta, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2017)
From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin: German and Russian Stories Transposed to Modern-day America, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2013)
Emblems and stories on the international community
Perception by country – Transposing emblems, articles, short stories and reports from around the world
Credits: Baarskeerdersbos, South Africa – Old house – Grobler du Preez (Shutterstock)
Source: The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed